He is one of the most important Apple managers, but hardly anyone knows him. As head of chip development, 56-year-old Johny Srouji is responsible for the “magic” of the devices.
Johny Srouji is one of the most influential men in Silicon Valley – but even long-time technology fans are unlikely to have heard his name. That changed abruptly on Monday when the 56-year-old stepped into the limelight at this year’s opening keynote at the Apple developer conference WWDC.
And Srouji, Head of Apple’s Chip Development, could hardly have wished for a more brilliant appearance: The keynote lasted an hour and a half, the powder seemed long gone when Tim Cook pulled an ace out of his sleeve. The Apple boss announced that Mac computers will in the future be equipped with their own chips based on the same technology as those that already set the pace in more than a billion iPhones and iPads. This step is nothing less than “the beginning of a new era”, rejoiced Cook.
This era is largely shaped by Srouji. Who is the man who is largely responsible for the development of the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch – and who is now supposed to drive Apple’s computing revolution?
Apple’s chip whisperer
Srouji was born in Haifa, a port city in northern Israel, in 1964. He was the third of four children, and his father owned a small mold factory. He was passionate about science and computers at an early age, and at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science.
Upon graduation, Srouji got a job at IBM, which had its largest non-American research facility in Haifa. He did research on distributed systems, a promising field in which computers in different locations are networked together to perform computationally intensive tasks.
In 1993 he moved to Intel, where he stayed until 2005. After another stopover at IBM, he joined Apple. He was hired by Bob Mansfield, an Apple veteran and one of Steve Jobs’ closest advisors. Mansfield lured him with the opportunity to build something from scratch.
Own chips were the cornerstone for success
That was in 2008, when the iPhone had only been on the market for a year. The device was considered the future, but suffered from the problems of the present. The battery life was short, the phone only radioed on a slow 2G connection, but most of all it was underpowered. Jobs knew that if he wanted to make a difference in the long run, he couldn’t avoid developing his own chips.
When Srouji hired Apple, 40 engineers were working on integrating chips from various suppliers into the iPhone. In April 2008 the number multiplied to 150 employees after Apple bought the PowerPC developer company PA Semi. Srouji took over the management, his first big task was the development of the Apple A4, the first in-house SoC.
The abbreviation SoC stands for “System-on-a-Chip”. While circuits and components such as main memory are usually outsourced on a PC mainboard, an SoC has all the important hardware elements such as image signal processor and memory controller combined on one chip. This is the only way to implement the powerful yet slim smartphones as we know them today.
Developing its own SoC instead of buying one enables the company to adapt its products to a level of detail so that they perfectly match the functions of its software and at the same time maintain the critical balance between speed and battery consumption. Almost two years after Srouji started working at Apple, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad. The world celebrated the giant touchscreen, but the actually groundbreaking technology was invisible to the eye: the A4 chip.
Srouji is “the most important Apple executive you’ve never heard of,” wrote the US business portal “Bloomberg In December 2015, he was promoted to Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies, reporting directly to Tim Cook.
Hundreds of engineers are behind the magic
With each generation, Apple continued to improve its chip designs. The graphics performance of the iPad has increased a thousandfold within a decade, Srouji calculated during the keynote. The advances are so immense that iPhone processors outperformed Android competition years ago in terms of speed.
The company has long since ceased to limit itself to computing chips: the devices are now crammed with components that have been optimized for individual applications. Some control the artificial intelligence, others count the steps of the user, optimize the graphics of video games or encrypt private data and pack them in a kind of virtual safe.
It is only the interaction of all these elements that creates the “magic” that Apple managers like to conjure up. But of course there is nothing supernatural about headphones connecting to the phone particularly quickly or a computer being unlocked with a watch. It is simply the result of many hours of work by the engineers who work on new components in strictly shielded laboratories in Apple’s hometown of Cupertino and in Herzliya, Israel.
In the end, it’s all about performance per watt
One could catch a glimpse of one of these laboratories during the keynote. In black jeans and a gray shirt, Srouji stood in a room that was otherwise strictly isolated from the outside world, surrounded by dozens of computers and equipment, while he explained what, in his opinion, really matters with chips: the performance per watt.
“The iPhone required performance and capabilities that were seen as impossible in such a small device,” says the 56-year-old. Because space was limited but computing requirements were high, the team had to focus on finding the best power-per-watt ratio. “And now we’re bringing all of that expertise and the same focused and disciplined approach to the Mac.” Srouji is convinced that the switch from Intel to homemade processors will raise the Mac to “a completely new level of performance”.
But are Apple’s ARM chips actually powerful enough to replace Intel and AMD? That’s still an open question – at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the company shied away from giving a definitive answer. Apple was primarily about preparing the world for change (here’s why). The company’s typical diagrams, benchmarks and superlatives, which otherwise accompany every new generation of silicon made in Cupertino, were missing. There are no more than short demos and vague promises. And the focus on the phrase “performance per watt” is also puzzling. It may be that Apple builds the most efficient chips – but are they the best and fastest in computers too?
But you shouldn’t overestimate the brief insights from Monday, the group may announce further details as soon as there is a specific product. The first Mac with an Apple chip should appear this year. In any case, the group will be two-pronged for at least two years. Because at least in public Apple does not give Intel the pass. Apple not only plans to introduce a few Mac computers with Intel chips in the future, the company also assured that they will “continue to support and release new versions of MacOS for Intel-based Macs in the years to come”.
Chips from the torture chamber
With the switch from Intel to its own chips, Apple is also gaining control over innovations in its computers and no longer has to wait for Intel’s ever-unpredictable innovation cycles. That offers opportunities, but also risks. The development of chips does not forgive mistakes, every single transistor has to work. To ensure this, Apple tests each component in special test laboratories for weeks or even months under the most adverse conditions.
The star visited one of the secret laboratories last year, where chips are treated with strong temperature fluctuations from -40 to +110 degrees Celsius. This processor torture chamber is intended to ensure that the hardware is not prone to errors, even under extreme conditions. After all, hackers could intentionally create such circumstances in order to exploit any vulnerabilities. The engineers therefore play it safe and sometimes demand more from the silicon than it can withstand. Because once the chips are stuck in millions and millions of devices in the wild, the damage is great if an error goes undetected.
Billions in costs
That is why many manufacturers prefer to rely on specialists like Qualcomm and Intel who produce chips on a large scale. This is understandable for many reasons, but it increases the uniformity of the devices. In other words: if the same chip is in every smartphone, the user experience is the same everywhere. In order to stand out from the competition, Samsung and Huawei – the two largest smartphone manufacturers in the world in terms of sales volume – use in-house chips in their phones,
In addition, the science of silicon is costly and complex – and it is easy to adopt. Apple can also tell you a thing or two about it: The development of its own chips for the Mac was a goal that the company already pursued in the 80s and 90s. In the end, billions were dumped in the sand without a marketable product being created. The foray into the business with complicated and expensive chips only makes sense as long as the company sells 300 million devices per year, “Bloomberg” calculated once.
Nevertheless: The development of the highly specialized, not even postage stamp-sized chips not only devours a lot of money. If you do everything right, they wash many times the cost back into the till. Because only the interaction of the various devices makes the Apple ecosystem attractive, for which in turn many customers are willing to spend more money. The chips are therefore an essential component of Apple’s winning machine.
The stock options worth around $ 10 million, which were part of Srouji’s promotion in December 2015, are likely to have paid off for Cook so far.